The ‘P’ word

January 10, 2001

’TIS the season when mere mention of the “P” word evokes highly charged responses from members of the relevant fraternity.

Currently immersed in nightly rehearsals for the 38th annual competition (fondly called “The ’Rama”), players and custodians of the unmentionable instrument are rendered intensely passionate about their precious contest and brook no critique from external sources.

At this time, it matters little to them that last year, adjudicators and aficionados were subjected to a 16-hour punishment at one preliminary round of The ’Rama. Any expressed anxiety over the fact that the contest experienced a staggering deficit on its $4.2 million budget, or that it has historically lost millions, is met with monumental disinterest.

After spending more than $20 million on transportation during the existence of The ’Rama, the fraternity does not own a single rig, although several of its unemployed members have become experts at packing delicate instruments and could probably provide a year-round, revenue earning trucking service.

Last year alone $700,000 was spent on moving bands back and forth for the contest.

Evidently, what is paramount for the practitioners is that they be allowed to enjoy the ten minutes of glory, basking in applause from the gallery, unfettered by economic or aesthetic considerations; as they play the song at which everyone has worked so terribly hard and for so long.

Ironically, the very audience to which all this effort is dedicated, the one they come out to overwhelm becomes inconsequential, once the lights go up.

Some actually say “To hell with the people in the stands,” adopting a posture far easier to maintain than the arduous prospect of developing strategies for staging a more attractive show. “The patronage,” they argue, “is not really interested in our music, anyway; so why should we care about them?”

Observe how long they take to set up the orchestras, although using an area that has not changed its specifications in decades to position pan racks of equally well-known configurations. Don’t tell the “P” people it is a simple geometry puzzle any Form One high school student could solve in seconds, given a pencil and a sheet of graph paper.

See them bring hordes of supporters onto the stage, in a show of strength sadly misplaced at a music competition, a habit that further retards the process. Witness arguments with officials while players are being counted and muse on the value of Sesame Street to adults. Watch the women wine onstage, oblivious to the fact that their gyrations, albeit visually stimulating, often neutralises the primary purpose of holding aloft a banner carrying information about the orchestra.

And unless you enjoy contempt, pray don’t tell them that more than two-thirds of the live show is really dead time, or that even among the certified insane, very few wish to sit through 40 orchestras, each playing a ten-minute song, with burdensome breaks in between.

Granted, a $40 ticket price to hear 40 conventional orchestras of 100 members each, amounts to one cent per performer at the gates. Perhaps for such a deal, any audience should be eternally grateful. In the case of the single “P” bands, the evidence shows that no one is willing to pay a black cent to hear them, yet their category of The ’Rama last year cost taxpayers $500,000. Tell them that and they respond astonishingly: “We are taxpayers too.”

But in fairness to the consumer, what passes as the preliminary round of The ’Rama, ranks as nothing more than an audition in any other artistic discipline. Indeed, several of the bands appearing onstage at this level of the contest should be made to pay an admission price.

But quite the opposite happens. In fact, good money is available to any registered band whose members are merely required to show up and strike their instruments consistently. Last year, that cost $850,000 for conventional bands alone and an additional $1.6 million in fees for individual players.

The semi-final tier has lost much of its initial attraction, perhaps because so tiresome an exercise is geared to do nothing more than select 12 bands from 16. Last year, ties brought the number of qualifiers to 19 and cost “P” Trinbago $171,000 just to have them appear at the venue. Again, never mind the audience (or lack of it). Players and musical arrangers say it gives them yet another chance to tidy up execution of their precious songs.

At the grand final, no year has been able to solve the riddle of how many patrons should fit on each reserved seat. Overall, audiences have come to consider tardiness and applied inefficiency as standard components of The ’Rama which at the end of the competition, pays out some $1 million in prizes.

Not that this is a lot of money for the “P” thing, given its social role as a valuable distraction from a lot of other pursuits in which the 7,000 players could have been involved.

But in much the same way as The ’Rama quickly outlived its original purpose as an alternative to gang violence, the lifespan of the current version has also passed the point of measurable usefulness. Left in its current format, The ’Rama will only keep costing more each year to deliver the same product.
But apparently, no one wants to seriously discuss the “P” word.

Terry-J at I-Level